All the marbles.
All the revenge.
All the love.
All the hate.
All wrapped up on Christmas Eve inside the big gift box that was the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
It might be the biggest room in the world, but on this Sunday the Dome strained to contain all the emotions, subplots and consequences from an enormous New Orleans Saints-Atlanta Falcons game.
The Saints season no one saw coming is headed to the playoffs.
In the end, the Saints were in a gift-giving mood, all right. In the mood to deliver some Season’s Beatings to their most bitter rival and give Saints fans, frustrated by three straight 7-9 seasons, the most welcome of presents:
A return to the playoffs for the first time since 2013, and giant step forward to the cusp of an NFC South division title with a 23-13 victory.
It was an unforgettable chapter in this deep fried, Deep South blood feud that has produced so many of them.
It started before kickoff. As if this game needed any more juice (or eggnog, as it were), Drew Brees left the captains meeting at midfield and went over to Steve Gleason, the bronzed eternal Saints hero of this rivalry. Brees held up Gleason’s ALS-stilled left arm, a throat-catching moment times 10.
All part of a yelling, screaming, towel-waving emotional gumbo, heightened even more by New Orleans’ already-infamous 20-17 loss Dec. 7 at Atlanta. The noise levels were at “This is Spinal Tap,” “these speakers go to 11,” trapped-inside-a-base drum intensity.
“This was one of the top three loudest atmospheres,” Brees said afterward. “Just electric. Our fans deserve this win.”
In the first Falcons game, in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium with the broken roof, everything seemed to conspire against the Saints. Mr. Do Everything, rookie running back Alvin Kamara, was lost early on to a concussion. The Saints served up nine first downs by penalty to the Falcons like an eager-to-please concierge. And in perhaps the cruelest cut, Falcons linebacker Deion Jones, the defiant pride of Jesuit High School, picked off Brees in the end zone when it looked like the Saints would at least manage a field goal to force overtime.
The loss dropped the Saints into a near tie with the Carolina Panthers for first place in the division, though New Orleans holds the tiebreaker having swept Carolina this season. But the defeat seemed to rub some of the chrome off what had been a charmed Saints season to date, even threatening their playoff hopes if they stumbled down the stretch.
A lackluster 31-19 win last week over the hapless New York Jets did little to move the Saints’ optimism meter. But these were the hated Falcons. Surely this effort would be different.
The Falcons had just a little of that magic from three weeks ago working their way in this one. Jones intercepted Brees again, for the third time in his young career, off a tipped pass intended for Ted Ginn Jr. early in the third quarter. Jones lugged the ball back to the Saints’ 2, but two plays later Devonta Freeman had the ball punched out by Tyeler Davison, New Orleans linebacker Manti Te’o recovering at the 4.
Come now with the Ghost of Christmas Past to just before halftime, as the Saints created one of those indelible memories that this rivalry always seems to cultivate.
Marshon Lattimore cradled a tipped Matt Ryan pass with, well, his backside, at the Saints 36. Three plays later, Brees threw a bomb 54 yards to Ginn, touching off another seismic Superdome eruption and sending New Orleans into the halftime locker room up 13-0.
The misery wasn’t over for Freeman, who played such a pivotal role in the Falcons’ 24-21 win at Tampa Bay last Monday night. On the first play of the fourth quarter he was stuffed on fourth-and-goal at the Saints 1 by Hau’oli Kikaha and Ken Crawley, preserving New Orleans’ 20-3 lead.
It was an exceptional defensive effort by the Saints, especially in the wake of having to shelve starting safety Kenny Vaccaro for surgery to repair a groin injury. Cam Jordan polished his All-Pro credentials with a couple of sacks and Lattimore held his own against talented Falcons receiver Julio Jones, giving up some yards but making some major plays as well (see Interception, backside). Even reserves like George Johnson played huge; he was credited with 1.5 of the Saints’ five sacks on Ryan.
“Our defense was magnificent,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “We lost six or seven starters out of that group. That was the key to the game.”
It isn’t a completely perfect world for the Saints, though. Next week’s season-ending trip to Tampa Bay to face the 4-11 Buccaneers will be just as huge for the Who Dats.
While the Saints were beating the Falcons, the Carolina Panthers pulled out a 22-19 win at home over Tampa. New Orleans and Carolina are now both 11-4, meaning the Saints need a win New Year’s Eve or a Carolina loss at Atlanta to win the NFC South. It puts the Saints in the odd “enemy of my enemy is my friend” scenario, rooting for their archrival to win a week after ending the Falcons’ divisional title hopes.
“Each week the games get bigger and the wins get sweeter,” Brees said. “We realize that.”
Bigger, yes, but sweeter will be hard to come by.
This was a victory over the Falcons, after all.